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Explaining a father’s death to his toddler
Q: I lost my husband to cancer when our only son was 7 months old. Now, at 28 months old, he sees his dad’s picture and says, “Papa.” I live with family, and we avoid talking about my son’s dad because I don’t know how to explain things. He’s so attached to my brother that whenever we see a kid with his dad, we say, “He’s with his uncle.” My biggest nightmare is that he will find out that there are dads, and that other kids have them. How can I explain to him where his dad is, and how can overcome this nightmare?
Afouf Claremont
A: I’m sure your husband’s death has been a terrible loss for you. You’re probably still grieving the loss and may even feel that you’re at a standstill. My first suggestion is for you to see a grief counselor so you can complete your grieving and continue on with your life.

As for your son, he’s at an age where he learns a lot about life from stories, so help him understand his dad’s death through books. There are many picture books that focus on children or animals who have lost their parents. Choose a few to read to your son. In this way he will come to understand that he once had a dad who became so sick that the doctors could not fix him.

When a child loses a parent, it’s important to find a substitute, such as an uncle or a grandfather. You’re fortunate that your brother has taken a loving interest in your son. However, I don’t think you should continue referring to fathers as uncles. This will not help your son. He, too, has to come to terms with the fact that his dad has died.

Since your son has no memory of his father, it will be easy for him to attach himself to a new dad, if you choose to remarry. Just make sure you find a man who not only loves you but your son as well.
Kenneth N. Condrell Ph.D Child Psychologist